Source: http://www.topsailadvertiser.com, September 27, 2018
By: Cammie Bellamy
Mold clean-up after Hurricane Florence is expected to cost Pender County Schools millions of dollars. But the state’s insurance policy for school buildings is unlikely to cover it.
District officials and the Pender County Board of Education held an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss storm damage to its buildings. Darren LaFon, the district’s Chief Officer of Operations, said as of Thursday, seven out of 18 schools are not ready to occupy: South Topsail Elementary, Cape Fear Elementary, Cape Fear Middle, North Topsail Elementary, Rocky Point Elementary, Topsail Elementary and Topsail Middle.
“The east-side schools got hit pretty hard,” LaFon said.
Though damage assessments have not been completed, LaFon said early, “worst case scenario” estimates for mold damage at seven schools were well over a million dollars. Estimates ranged from $1,080,000 at North Topsail Elementary to $1,980,000 at Topsail High School.
“I do not expect those numbers to be anywhere near that high,” LaFon said. “This is just mold abatement, this is not structural issues. There will be some more.”
Pender High School, still serving as a shelter for county residents, has not been fully evaluated. The shelter at Topsail Middle School is scheduled to close Friday and be moved to Pender High.
The good news, LaFon said, is that mold clean-up is a fairly quick process. He estimated all of the affected schools could be ready to open by Oct. 8.
But Richard Schwartz, the board’s lawyer, noted that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s insurance policy for schools is very specific in emergency damages it will not cover. While wind damage is covered, he said, damage from wind-driven rain is not. Flood damage is not covered, and nor is mold remediation, he said.
“The state’s insurance policy has so many exclusions and exceptions that it almost swallows the policy whole,” he said.
School districts still have the option of applying for FEMA funds to cover damages. And school leaders from along the coast, including Pender County Schools, have pitched a proposal to N.C. legislators to create an emergency capital fund to pay for storm damages not covered by insurance.
The state General Assembly is expected to convene in Raleigh next week.
Superintendent Steven Hill told board members he is aiming for an Oct. 8 reopening day for schools. That date is tentative.
Pender Early College High School, which operates out of Cape Fear Community College’s Burgaw campus, will start classes Oct. 1 along with the rest of CFCC. Early college classes not held on CFCC’s campus will start Oct. 8.
At Penderlea School, students will move into their newly completed building Oct. 9; the board voted to move a teacher work day to Monday, Oct. 8. Construction has wrapped on the two-story replacement for the 82-year-old Penderlea School, and the district does not plan to repair any hurricane damages to the old building.
“Really nobody has discussed spending money on a school that we’re getting ready to bulldoze,” Hill told the board. “As of discussion today, it is very doable to have those students in Oct. 8.”
Another major issue the district is facing is employee home loss. Hill said as of Thursday, he was aware of 58 teachers who had either lost their homes in the storm or were facing long-term displacement.
Board chairman Kenneth Lanier said school officials needed to be prepared to deal students and staff alike who may be distracted by the trauma of the storm.
“The main objective here — it’s not going to be a perfect scenario — but it is to bring this county back to normal,” he said. “And normal may be a long, slow process, but we’ve got to do it.”